MLB playoff teams dealing with pitching uncertainty

Since 2016, five different pitchers have won the National League Cy Young Award. Within the span of about two hours Wednesday afternoon, word came that two of them probably would be unavailable to their teams in October.

Texas Rangers General Manager Chris Young, who had already lost a member of that Cy Young quintet to injury when Jacob deGrom underwent Tommy John surgery earlier this year, announced that Max Scherzer had a shoulder strain that will end his regular season. Miami Marlins Manager Skip Schumaker delivered the news that their ace, Sandy Alcantara, has a sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament — the kind of injury that he might try to throw through as the Marlins push toward the playoffs, meaning he will be at partial strength for the rest of the season at best.

The Rangers and Marlins, both of whom are perched precariously in their respective frenetic wild-card races, are not exactly the only teams who saw their pitching staffs looking far different this time of year. In fact, contenders in both leagues enter the final two weeks of the regular season with starting rotations that have been perforated by injuries and other calamities repeatedly. As the standings are now, more playoff teams will enter October with patched-together or inexperienced rotations than will get there with their aces intact. And the most strenuous, pressure-packed innings lie ahead.

Some teams have dodged this year’s seemingly omnipresent injury bullet, at least so far. The Milwaukee Brewers are winning the NL Central on the backs of their aces, Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff. The Atlanta Braves, whose season has been a near miracle of health and wellness, have Spencer Strider and Max Fried ahead of Charlie Morton — a relative bushel of proven starting pitching. The Philadelphia Phillies have Zach Wheeler and, though he has had something of a down year, Aaron Nola. The Toronto Blue Jays, should they emerge from the American League wild card fray, have used only seven starters all season. But none of Chris Bassitt, Hyun Jin Ryu, Yusei Kikuchi or Kevin Gausman could stand up to the Rangers as Texas swept them in a crucial four-game series this week.

Max Scherzer ‘unlikely’ to pitch in postseason after shoulder injury

Almost every other playoff team will be navigating recently unfamiliar levels of pitching uncertainty. The two Cy Young front-runners, Gerrit Cole in the AL and Blake Snell in the NL, are on teams that won’t make the postseason. Teams that will are without the aces that brought them there in the past.

Few franchises have more recent playoff experience than the Los Angeles Dodgers. Few executives know better than Andrew Friedman how important it is to stockpile starting pitching, particularly if you plan to play deep into October. But though the Dodgers are one of just two teams with a double-digit lead in their division, they are entering this postseason with a rotation that looks almost entirely unfamiliar from those that have led Los Angeles into October repeatedly for most of the last decade.

Clayton Kershaw is still there, yes, but he is pitching through a shoulder injury that has resulted in a major velocity dip and caused the Dodgers to skip his turn in the rotation. Manager Dave Roberts indicated that Julio Urías’s Dodgers tenure is all but officially over after he was arrested on a domestic violence-related charge earlier this month, eliminating another staple of recent Dodgers’ playoff runs. The team ended Walker Buehler’s push to return from Tommy John surgery in time for the playoffs out of concern for his long-term health. Had the Dodgers not traded for veteran Lance Lynn at the deadline, Kershaw might have been the only starter with postseason experience in their October plans, though Lynn has pitched to a 4.60 ERA and allowed 13 homers in 47 innings since the deal.

Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May both suffered season-ending injuries, forcing the Dodgers to rely heavily on rookies Ryan Pepiot, Bobby Miller, Gavin Stone and Emmet Sheehan. Just two years ago, the Dodgers entered the playoffs with Scherzer, Buehler, Urías, Gonsolin and a deep bullpen. This year, they have rookies, a struggling veteran and an achy ace.

Another postseason fixture, the Houston Astros, are maneuvering their way back to their usual October relevance despite also suffering several blows to their rotation depth. Reacquiring Justin Verlander helped a great deal, yes. And lefty Framber Valdez has been excellent again. But instead of playoff veterans such as Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis Garcia, both of whom suffered season-ending injuries, the Astros will be relying on the likes of Hunter Brown, whom Dusty Baker removed from his start Wednesday after five no-hit innings so he could leave “on a positive note” after recent struggles. Rookie J.P. France could start a third game for Houston, but he is unproven, too. And if the Astros are to make the kind of October run to which they have become accustomed, Brown, France, or both will probably have to pitch a whole lot more than just the third game of a potential wild-card or division series.

The Rays, known for their willingness to get creative with their bullpen and openers in October, began this season with so much starting pitching it seemed this might finally be the year they used a downright traditional rotation. In the months since, they have lost Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen and Shane McClanahan to season-ending injuries, leaving them with Tyler Glasnow and a rejuvenated Zach Eflin ahead of some combination of Aaron Civale, Taj Bradley and Zack Littell, as well as any number of bullpen options. Civale looked strong as he held the Baltimore Orioles to three runs in a pressure-packed series opener Thursday night. But he wasn’t the third starter the Rays envisioned when the year began.

The AL East-leading Orioles have a variation on the same starting pitching conundrum. While their young rotation has largely stayed healthy this season, key pieces Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez and Dean Kremer have never pitched so many meaningful innings before, blowing by their professional highs. Former ace John Means made his first start after 2022 Tommy John surgery this week, and Orioles General Manager Mike Elias has been careful to say the team has no expectations for what he can give them in the postseason. Veteran Kyle Gibson is the main member of their rotation with playoff experience, but he is by no means pitching like a postseason ace. If the Orioles are going to make a run, it will be on the back of young pitchers who have never done this before — which of course, doesn’t mean they can’t.

And then there are the Rangers, the team that had deGrom and Scherzer on its active roster at points this year but will enter the playoffs without either of them. On paper, they are as equipped as anyone to handle the blows with playoff stalwart Nathan Eovaldi available to pair with Jon Gray, Jordan Montgomery and more. But Eovaldi is coming off an injury, and his velocity is down. Montgomery was meant to provide depth, not start the most meaningful games of Texas’s season. Gray has been solid, pitching to a 3.96 ERA over 50 starts with Texas since the start of 2022. But none of them are deGrom and Scherzer. Fortunately for the Rangers, they aren’t the only team entering October without an ace.

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